Radford professor explains importance of New York Times KO’ing sports section


In September, the New York Times closed its sports section, handing over coverage, and some of its writers and reporters, to The Athletic, which the newspaper owns. Radford University School of Communication Professor and media historian Bill Kovarik explains how this decision will affect readers and sports enthusiasts of all ages.

When the New York Times closed its sports desk in September, older readers marked the passing of an era and younger ones yawned. Searching for excitement, video highlights and insider stories, most young fans won’t miss the storied, stodgy sports desk and its old-fashioned graphics. A new approach at The Athletic, a non-union sports publication owned by the Times, may have more appeal, Times editors hope. 

Still, let’s pause a moment to reflect on the 172-year legacy of sports coverage at the Times.  

It begins with a horse race, reported on the second day of the newspaper’s existence: Sept. 19, 1851. Lady Jane won the mile race in two and a half minutes, the Times soberly reported from the state fair, not neglecting to also note the livestock competitions and crowds on the midway.    

 Sports coverage picked up a few years later when a Times reporter covering a cricket game in Hoboken, New Jersey, noticed a new sport called “base ball” (two words) being played on the far side of a field. The reporter and the newspaper went all-out to promote baseball, helping to create a culture of sports but also prompting concerns that it had crossed an ethical line.  

Through the years, great writers — notably Pulitzer Prize winners Arthur Daley, Red Smith and Dave Anderson, along with feature writer Gay Talese — got their start, or their parting shot, on the Times sports desk.    

Left behind are some blots on the scoreboard, such as outright racism in the coverage of boxers John Jackson around 1910 and Mohammed Ali in the 1960s. But there were also stellar moments, such as coverage of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, two Black Americans who beat the Nazis in the Olympics and boxing rings in the 1930s to wide public acclaim. Also, on the stellar side of the scoreboard we also find the story of Pee Wee Reese, a White Brooklyn Dodgers player who built a friendship with breakthrough Black baseball star Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. Reese, with Times coverage, pointed the way toward racial reconciliations in America.  

As the newspaper of record, historians looking at the Times will have a rich legacy to explore, including millions of news articles about games and legendary sports figures. They may also find that the Times’ news agenda was slightly askew from American popular opinion, with fewer stories about baseball and football (about 750,000 combined) than tennis and golf (over 1.2 million). Historians will also have extensive records of great events, including the Olympics (63,000 news articles), NFL’s Super Bowl (42,700) and the World Series (404,000). 

These will remain to be appreciated — but not mourned. 

Historically, turnover in media is expected in a democracy. It’s part of the great marketplace of ideas. When traditional media speak in the voice of older generations, the next ones naturally turn to new voices and new markets. And when new technologies drive those new markets, communications revolutions will light up the wires again, and engage stellar new imaginations, just as they once did for their parents and grandparents. 

Sep 22, 2023
Chad Osborne
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Oct 11, 2023
School of Communication